We helped her as often as we could. We brought leftovers when the foodstamps ran low and we gave her rides when possible. She was the youngest of six, the only girl. She slept on a mattress on the floor in her parents’ room, which meant she slept very close to the roaches that crawled over the carpet. If her parents stayed out late, she slept in their bed. If they were loud, she slept on the couch. Her five brothers shared the other bedroom, and every morning it was her responsibility to wake them for school. They would cuss and throw shoes when she turned on the light, a single bulb surrounded by hanging yellow mosquito strips.
While the boys ate cereal, she made peanut butter sandwiches for their lunch. Also, mayonnaise and cheese. She did their laundry the night before. Sometimes, if she had been busy, the clothes would be damp in the dryer. They blamed her for this, especially when they had to wear the same outfit two days in a row. The boys attended older schools that started earlier, which gave her forty minutes alone to get ready in her parents’ bathroom. Here, she had a single drawer, otherwise the sink was covered with mildewed washcloths and tangles of her mother’s jewelry. A roof leak had stained the shower walls brown. We never would’ve used it. The elementary school bus stop was at the end of their driveway. The driver would honk and she would bust out running past the vine strangled lawn mower and the upturned rusted stove. One day, she quit coming.
Her family had a reputation for speed. They worked on our cars and motorcycles everyday in their front yard, which faced the Piggly Wiggly, so we all knew about them. She would sit there while they tinkered, and her father and her uncle would explain the mechanical parts. They were full of philosophies. When she was ten they let her use a screwdriver. When she was twelve they let her use a power drill. She changed our tires and filters and oil. Years before she was of age for road driving, she raced on mud tracks. She built the engines with her father, and he coached her to beat the white boys. After she won the county championship, we came up with a nickname for her.
The problems started when she got her real license. It was the regular road and the slow drivers that did it. She shared her father’s temperament and daring. The accident made Raleigh news channels because of her local celebrity and because it happened on the dirt road by the whirligigs of Acid Park. The photographs looked like something from a movie. Glass was everywhere. Considering the state of the car, what remained, we were amazed that she survived, although after seeing her, we had questions. Doctors claimed that she could understand words being spoken. If her father pried hard enough, he could undo her balled hands and straighten her knees.
Since grade school, he had a hard time making friends with boys. It was his nails or his hair, both of which were nicer than any of ours. We joked about his flailing legs when he ran and his skinny arms when he climbed. We wouldn’t come near him while he changed clothes for physical education, in fact, we made a point to walk around the corner. One day, in his locker, an anonymous student hung a wool skirt. When his parents heard about this, they enrolled him in home school. We saw very little of him after that.
He spoke English at school and Spanish at home. His family lived in a mobile home park occupied entirely by migrants. Every morning at four o’clock, the parents were picked up for work on old buses owned by farmers. A few hours later, school buses came for the kids. He was in high school, so in the afternoon he cared for his siblings and the neighbors on either side, eleven altogether. He met them at the bus stop and unlocked the homes with the keys entrusted. Then, he walked and went to work at the orange painted tienda a mile away. There, products with Spanish labels filled the shelves: groceries, CD’s, blue jeans, rhinestone boots, sunglasses, novels, adult entertainment, a bin of used things. We rarely went in there, although occasionally we ate at the taqueria next door. We loved their carne asada. In the parking lot, his friends would gather and show off their car undercarriages and rims. They played music loud enough to rattle the store windows. When they peeled out, he had to sweep the sidewalk.
Other boys developed reputations as bandidos or vaqueros. He became known for his work ethic. One day, Mr Scott offered him a fair wage to join his parents in the field, and he did, two hours every morning and four hours every afternoon, and for ten hours on Saturdays. He would bend over and gather sweet potatoes until his bucket weighed thirty pounds, and he would hurry it to the truck and hoist it to the worker standing in the cargo, and he would jog back to his place in line and do it again, just like the others. They also topped and suckered tobacco. Of all the workers, he spoke the best English. Mr Scott used him to translate. Even when he didn’t work, Mr Scott called and asked questions. Mr Scott talked about him all the time, and we started hiring him for odd jobs. He framed a new shed for Mr Sheffield. He delivered car parts for Mr Johnson. He assisted with the relocation of a few whirligigs from Acid Park to downtown Wilson. He collected rent for the mobile home park where he lived. At first, his neighbors applauded his promotions. They offered food and water when he came for their money. Soon, though, some of them started asking for favors. When he refused, they made his job harder. He stuck with it, working for Mr Scott and all of us, and with the extra money he helped his family move into an apartment with central air conditioning and new carpet. He even graduated on time.
She was the smartest and most popular person in school. That, and the obvious reason, of course, made it so difficult for us when they found her near the reservoir.
The track team, her sport, forfeited the 4 x 100 relay, her event, in every meet that season, and at the county championships the other teams walked arm in arm for the entire lap, disqualifying each of them, and guaranteeing that nobody’s name would be entered into the record books that year.
Bill Atkinson and Tim Atkinson
These two brothers dropped out of school at the same time, which we saw coming. Not that it mattered, they never went. Instead, they would ride dirt bikes and four-wheelers, or they would hang around the mechanic’s garage when he worked on vintage cars. They said school was useless and their parents agreed since they had been working the farm since they were five-years old, climbing through tobacco barns, gathering berries. The plan was for them to keep with it, of course, until they inherited the property.
After leaving school, at age seventeen and age fourteen, they moved into a trailer set away from the house. We said their parents were crazy for allowing this. The trailer was near the curing barns, same size, too. That first harvest, they stole tobacco from the barns and rolled it into cigarettes and sold it to us. Then, when the harvest was through, they grew marijuana and distilled moonshine and sold it to us. Then, they drove to Raleigh for the hard stuff. Supposedly, it was for selling only, which they did very well. The stuff wasn’t anywhere else in town. They did so well with it that they kept going awhile until one of us died from an overdose, the first time that happened in town. It was in Acid Park, ironically. We pointed our fingers, and the brothers were arrested.
The court tried the older brother as an adult and they convicted him. He was sentenced to a bunch of years. Considering his temper, he’ll probably be in their for a bunch more. The younger brother got off easy, too young or too ignorant, the lawyers argued. Both were probably true. He spent a year in juvenile detention and went home to the farm. His life was pretty much the same as before, except he moved into the main house, his parents’ rule.
We never knew that cheerleading was a sport, although we knew that she was the best. During football games, she would run and handspring and twist a bunch of times. At homecoming one year, she brought out a vault and catapulted herself over the entire offensive line standing together. The other cheerleaders lit sparklers for the act, something they had never done for our daughters. We let the coach know about that. Her balance was impeccable, too, and when she wanted to show off she would cartwheel without her hands touching the ground or backflip from a standing position. Everything she did was solo, of course, and she always had the biggest smile despite her crooked teeth.
After football season, we watched her perform with the dance team, which was how she got noticed by the universities. They wanted her to compete at a higher level, so her father worked overtime and bought an old Chevy from Mr Johnson. She drove that sputtering engine six days a week to Raleigh to compete with a national team. We thought it might break down any day. We would have bought something reliable for our daughters. Still, she made it, and at the national showcase events she made a name for herself with people who know about those things. She could have gone to university in North Carolina. Instead, she chose some school in New York. They said she was going to work part-time on Broadway. The day before she left, the AME church hosted a barbecue in their parking lot. Her cheerleading and dance teams joined. So did some of the football players. We heard the food was delicious, although none of us went.
He grew up watching his father cut hair at Town Barber Shop on Main Street. He was a thick-legged baby in a stroller, then a scrawny long-haired child, then a moderately athletic teenager. He played a couple sports although he never took them seriously. Sometimes, he skipped Saturday morning practices to spend time in the shop. The coaches never cared because they knew where he was and they would be coming in later. He was our source for how our children were really getting along in class and who was dating whom and who was getting in trouble. Almost daily, he came up with ideas for improving the town, and we mostly agreed. Ironically, even at his age, he started losing his hair.
He learned the family trade when his father developed arthritis. His father would do the comb and he would do the scissors, both of them standing over our shoulders. We didn’t mind at all, and when things weren’t exactly right, we tipped anyway. He had difficulty performing fades with the clippers and he quit going to school so he could train. His friends let him practice on their hair. When he made mistakes, he buzzed it flat. After awhile, his hand steadied and his father let him handle everything, even the hot shaves.
Since 1974, his father cut our hair at Town Barber Shop on Main Street. Now, the boy was carrying on the family business. They drove together to work every morning at seven, except on Mondays when they went fishing. They ate lunch at Clint’s Corner, or if his mother was cooking, they went home. We knew his mother wanted him to graduate high school and go to college, although who would ever break up a father and son.
She grew up in the church, attending every bible study and youth fellowship meeting. During services, she sat in the front pew with her mother, and her father, Preacher Bonta, breathed fire and brimstone from the pulpit. His face would get red and he would sweat through his cassock. Members of the congregation would run up and down the aisles, some would faint from the Holy Ghost, and she would just sit there in the front pew, hands folded in her lap. She had a way of smirking every so often. For songs, she would hold open the hymnal and read along without opening her mouth. It became a game for us, betting on the first verse she would sing, and she never did. We argued all the time about her reasons for acting that way.
The boys in school turned her into something of a game, as well. They flirted with her in the hallway and they fought to sit beside her in class. In both circumstances, she ignored them. She had plenty of girl friends for socializing, and supposedly she told hilarious jokes. Then, the boys would come calling and she would shut down even as her friends flirted. The boys complained about her attitude. They told rumors until everyone believed them. Her friends defended her, saying she was misunderstood, which never helped. After one particular story circulated for weeks, she stopped coming to church.
Her family owned a bookstore located north of here on 301 highway. They sold Bibles and religious literature at discount prices. Sales were rare, and eventually Preacher Bonta turned it over to his daughter. With his blessing, we think, she donated all the books to The Salvation Army. Supposedly, she denied the requests of missionaries to take everything. She named the new store Melissa’s Uniquities and she filled the empty shelves with herbs, incense, spices, nature balms, curative powders, and other things we’d never known. She had an entire wall of dream catchers and another wall of de los muertos bobbleheads. She played the strangest music. It must have been from India or Africa. She burned exotic fragrances that we smelled before opening the door.
She always had a few customer cars out front, never any of us, and when the Atkinsons got busted, we suspected she was involved. We urged the sheriff’s department to investigate her entire store. We just knew that she was doing something illegal because we couldn’t explain her otherwise. A preacher’s daughter who showed no interest in religion. A growing young woman who disregarded the affections of potential future husbands. After the Atkinson trial, we watched every move she made. We visited the store and made notes of the merchandise. We wanted her know that our eyes were open.
Matt Gingrich lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his wife. He works in rural counties and writes about the people he meets. His fiction has appeared in Scrutiny Journal.